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#FlightFree2020 podcast episode 10: cycle touring

For low-carbon travel, you can't beat the humble bicycle. We speak to Debs and Jo, two seasoned (but very normal) cycle tourers about the wonders of exploring on two wheels.

FlightFree UK
03 Nov 2020 6 min read

This podcast is episode 10 of our #FlightFree2020 series. You can listen to the podcast, and access the rest of the series, at our podcast page.

A touring bicycle loaded with panniers, tent and roll mat

In our flight free 2020 podcast series we've talked a lot about travel. We’ve told you how to get to the Alps and various other European destinations by train, we've looked at the home grown tourism here in the British Isles – we’ve even explored how to cross an ocean without flying. But how about taking it back to basics with the humble bicycle?

As a mode of transport you can’t get much lower carbon, and it’s a fantastic leveller – it’s used by all sorts of people across the globe and it doesn’t require a huge budget to be able to go exploring by bike. We’ve lined up two passionate cycle tourers, Jo and Debs, to talk to us about travelling by bicycle.

Jo:

We started travelling by bike about 8 years ago – we thought it would be really cool to ride our bikes to France and ride around France for ten days.

Debs:

Jo thought it would be a good trip. I didn’t like cycling very much! I tried to ride my bike to school but I was a rubbish cyclist. So Jo was very excited about this trip cheese/wine/cycling holiday in France. A few months before I got a road bike which changed everything – it became less about my leg strength and more about my cardio-vascular fitness so it was an enjoyable holiday despite my serious misgivings in advance.

Jo:

We had read books by Mark Beaumont and Alastair Humphreys – crazy people who do really long trips – and thought I could never do that, but what I might be able to do is ride 20 miles a day in France and eat lots of bread and cheese and carry the tent. We had a really nice time. We’d always driven places before and the bike opened up a new kind of holiday and it went from there.

"We’d always driven places before and the bike opened up a new kind of holiday and it went from there."

Debs:

The cheese/wine/France tour was a gateway drug. For us it led to cycling around New Zealand and then, when we were working in Canada later that year and cycled from Toronto to Vancouver. Once we’d done that, the whole idea of setting off and cycling around the world becomes much more of a reality and not just something that you read in books.

Jo:

We thought, we could have a bash at that. So we put some panniers on our bikes, quit our jobs and set off and see how far we get. If we’d just got three months down the road and decided we were fed up we would just go home but we had a really great time and just kept on going. If you ride 50 miles and 50 miles the next day before you know it you're quite a long way from home. Before we knew it we were on the other side of the world and it had only taken about a year…

Flight Free UK:

So that meant you were catapulted into the category of crazy people!

Jo:

Yeah, we never thought of ourselves as those kind of crazy people you read about

Debs:

And we've never had frost in our beards.

Flight Free UK:

So what are the advantages of travelling by bicycle?

Jo:

Eating lots of cake! That's number one for me. Not worrying about going to three bakeries a day and having all kinds of different treats. It’s essential in terms of calories and energy. That’s one of the biggest draws! Now if we ever drive anywhere I feel like we haven’t earned our treat.

Debs:

You see everything at a good pace – nothing ever goes past too quickly. You see landscapes change, people change, culture change, food change etc. The more you travel in this way the more it feels weird to fly somewhere and be dumped there and not see these changes happen.

Flight Free UK:

Bicycle travel is fast enough to get somewhere but it’s slow enough to see everything. The physicality is included as well.

Jo:

Cycling is the perfect pace. We like walking but it takes a long time to get anywhere. By bicycle, distances are achievable.

Debs:

There's a great sense of accomplishment.

"Cycling is the perfect pace. With walking it takes a long time to get anywhere. By bicycle, distances are achievable."

Flight Free UK:

So given that international travel is so tricky at the moment, could the bicycle be the way we access travel and adventure while more conventional types of travel are difficult? It’s in our nature to get out and explore. As we've said, it’s a very accessible form of transport – we saw it during the lockdown in March this year when everyone was getting out on their bikes.

Now of course, Debs and Jo’s France tour led to them cycling all the way around the world. But it doesn't have to be long distance – one of the things Debs said during our chat was if you keep the mileage down you can keep the comfort high. You don't even have to camp – you can stay in hotels, do whatever makes you feel happy. There’s so much to explore here in the UK and you can really get to know places if you go there by bike.

Debs:

We got this book, Wild Ruins, and took the train to Kings Lynn, and stayed at hostels etc. We visited 12 ruined churches or abbeys in four days which gave a real sense of purpose to the trip. Whatever you’re interested in you can find those things and join them up by bicycle.

Jo and Debs are sitting side-by-side holding a piece of paper with the Flight Free 2020 pledge on it. They are both smiling and there is a grassy park in the background.
Jo and Debs with their Flight Free 2020 pledge

Flight Free UK:

What is your essential piece of kit?

Jo:

We always take a real pillow. They’re pretty bulky but they don’t weigh much. Life’s so much better when you’ve had a decent night’s sleep.

Debs:

Pack as light as you can. But don’t scrimp on gloves and socks for different weathers. If your hands and feet are comfy and warm and dry you’ll feel better about life.

"Whatever you’re interested in you can find those things and join them up by bicycle."

Flight Free UK:

We often talk about how travel opens our eyes to new cultures and helps us understand each other, and is a really important part of our globalised society. But at Flight Free UK we question whether air travel gives us that? Are we really conscious travellers when we fly? Or are other modes of travel more effective in teaching us about the world? Do you think that riding a bicycle makes you a more conscious traveller?

Debs:

Yes

Jo:

One thing that you can’t grasp when you travel by plane is distance. You get on a plane and a set amount of hours later you’re deposited in a new place. To appreciate how different it is and how far away from home it is, to be transported there in a box takes that away completely.

The other thing about travelling by bike is that you have to be aware of the places that you travel through. You need to get supplies, you need to stop for a break. We’ve met people in Asia who've been flying from site to tourist site to tourist site and you miss out all the rest of the country – you don’t appreciate what else there is and what a country is really like. Although you only ever get a glimpse of what a country is like, even by bike, you can’t see it all, but what you do see is a really good cross section because you have to travel through places where people live rather than just places where people visit as a tourist. You feel connected because your wheels are on the ground for a start but also people come and talk to you, interact, rather than just zooming over or through.

"You feel connected because people come and talk to you. You interact rather than just zooming over or through."

Debs:

Everyone wants to talk to you when you ride a bike. It’s also a great way to feel your surroundings, e.g. your wheels on the ground but also the weather, the temperature, encounters with wildlife, or with traffic etc.

Jo:

It’s more realistic. If you want an authentic travel experience, it’s that and more because you get the bad stuff as well as the good stuff. If you fly over stuff you miss all the stuff in between.

Flight Free UK:

So let's finish by talking about the climate. Now we’re at this point in our planet's history where emissions have to fall and fast. Do you think this is part of the answer? Reimagining travel and using flights very sparingly?

Debs:

Anything that reduces the reliance on other transport for journeys is super important. Not using your car for a two mile journey is just as important as not taking an unnecessary flight. I find it strange that people don't seem to associate their own trips with the carbon problem.

Jo:

And it is hard. It takes people to reassess what a holiday is. For most people, you don’t get much annual leave, you want to feel like you’re getting a suntan, and the way to do that is to get on a plane and go somewhere sunny for a week, and for so many people that is what a holiday is, and that’s what I used to do when I was younger. But this way, your holiday starts when you leave, rather than the holiday starting when you get off the plane.

Flight Free UK:

That’s a great sentiment to finish with, so thank you to Debs and Jo for joining us this month. You can follow their adventures at @brakesandcakes on twitter. Thanks for listening and see you next month.

Debs and Jo on their bikes in front of the Leicestershire county sign
Debs and Jo on the road

You can listen to this full podcast, and access the rest of the series, at our podcast page.

Credits: interview conducted and recorded by Anna Hughes. Intro voiceover: L. Sophie Helbig. Sound effects: Josh Hill.

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